Sunday, April 22, 2012

Robert Alvarez: "The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Is Far From Over"

From Huffington Post (4/22/2012):

Spent reactor fuel, containing roughly 85 times more long-lived radioactivity than released at Chernobyl, still sits in pools vulnerable to earthquakes.

More than a year after the Fukushima nuclear power disaster began, the news media is just beginning to grasp that the dangers to Japan and the rest of the world are far from over. After repeated warnings by former senior Japanese officials, nuclear experts, and now a U.S. Senator, it's sinking in that the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools amidst the reactor ruins pose far greater dangers than the molten cores. This is why:

• Nearly all of the 10,893 spent fuel assemblies sit in pools vulnerable to future earthquakes, with roughly 85 times more long-lived radioactivity than released at Chernobyl

• Several pools are 100 feet above the ground and are completely open to the atmosphere because the reactor buildings were demolished by explosions. The pools could possibly topple or collapse from structural damage coupled with another powerful earthquake.

• The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will result in overheating and can cause melting and ignite its zirconium metal cladding resulting in a fire that could deposit large amounts of radioactive materials over hundreds, if not thousands of miles.

This was not lost on Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who after visiting the site on April 6, wrote to Japan's U.S. ambassador, Ichiro Fujusaki, that "loss of containment in any of these pools... could result an even larger release of radiation than the nuclear accident."

The urgency of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity where 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0-5.7 have occurred off the northeast coast of Japan between April 14 and 17. This has been the norm since the first quake and tsunami hit the Dai-Ichi site on March 11 of last year. Larger quakes are expected closer to the power plant.

Spent nuclear fuel is extraordinarily radioactive and must be handled with great care. In a matter of seconds, an unprotected person one foot away from a single freshly removed spent fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation within seconds. As one of the most dangerous materials on the planet, spent reactor fuel requires permanent geological isolation to protect humans for thousands of years.

It's been 26 years, since the Chernobyl reactor exploded and caught fire releasing enormous amounts of radioactive debris -- seriously contaminating areas over a thousand miles away. Chernobyl revealed the folly of not having an extra barrier of thick concrete and steel surrounding the reactor core that is required for modern plants, in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. The Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident revealed the folly of operating several nuclear power plants in a high consequence earthquake zone while storing huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel in vulnerable pools, high above the ground.

What both accidents have in common is widespread environmental contamination from cesium-137. With a half-life of 30, years, Cs-137 gives off penetrating radiation, as it decays and can remain dangerous for hundreds of years. Once in the environment, it mimics potassium as it accumulates in the food chain. When it enters the human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue, with, perhaps, the most important muscle being the heart.

Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed plans to remove 2,274 spent fuel assemblies from the damaged reactors that will probably take at least a decade to accomplish. The first priority will be removal of the contents in Pool No. 4. This pool is structurally damaged and contains about 10 times more cesium-137 than released at Chernobyl. Removal of SNF from the No. 4 reactor is optimistically expected to begin at the end of 2013. A significant amount of construction to remove debris and reinforce the structurally-damaged reactor buildings, especially the fuel- handling areas, will be required.

Also, it is not safe to keep 1,882 spent fuel assemblies containing ~57 million curies of long-lived radioactivity, including nearly 15 times more cs-137 than released at Chernobyl in the elevated pools at reactors 5, 6, and 7, which did not experience meltdowns and explosions.

The main reason why there is so much spent fuel at the Da-Ichi site is that the plan to send it off for nuclear recycling has collapsed. It was supposed to go to the incomplete Rokkasho reprocessing plant, just south of the Fukushima nuclear site, where plutonium would be extracted as a fuel for "fast" reactors. This scheme is based on long discredited assumptions that world uranium supplies would be rapidly exhausted and that a new generation of "fast" reactors, which held the promise of making more fuel than they use, would be needed. Over the past 20 years the Rokkasho's costs have tripled along with 18 major delays. World uranium supplies are far from depleted. Moreover, in November of last year, Japan's "fast" reactor project at Monju was cancelled for cost and safety reasons -- dealing a major blow to this whole scheme.

The stark reality, if TEPCO's plan is realized, is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Da-Ichi containing some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain indefinitely in vulnerable pools. TEPCO wants to store the spent fuel from the damaged reactors in the common pool, and only to resort to dry, cask storage when the common pool's capacity is exceeded. At this time, the common pool is at 80 percent storage capacity and will require removal of SNF to make room. TEPCO's plan is to minimize dry cask storage as much as possible and to rely indefinitely on vulnerable pool storage. Sen. Wyden finds that that TEPCO's plan for remediation carries extraordinary and continuing risk and sensibly recommends that retrieval of spent fuel in existing on-site spent fuel pools to safer storage... in dry casks should be a priority.

Despite the enormous destruction from the earthquake and tsunami, little attention was paid to the fact that the nine dry spent fuel casks at the Fukushima Da-Ichi site were unscathed. This is an important lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

Some clarifications:

  • There is no Reactor 7 at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Reactors 7 and 8 were planned, but the plan was scrapped after the March 11, 2011 disaster. Construction was to start in April 2012.

  • Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is located at about 280 miles north of Fukushima I Nuke Plant.

  • TEPCO does have plans for dry casks, but they are to be used to remove spent fuel assemblies from the common spent fuel pool to make room for the fuel assemblies to be removed from the spent fuel pools in Reactors 1 through 4.


Anonymous said...

The solution cannot begin until Japan removes TEPCO from all decision making regarding the cleanup. Would it be too much to ask that someone like Arnie Gundersen be put in charge?

Anonymous said...

They wouldnt allow Arnie as he would sack TEPCO and tell the IAEA to sod off... and besides, Arnie likes to tell the truth which is a no no in the Nuclear industry

Greyhawk said...

This is more frightening than any Godzilla movie ever hoped to be. The biggest difference is that the Dia-Ichi situation is real. Unfortunately TEPCO is acting a lot like the greedy business people in those old movies. What irony. How did a society that was so concerned with nuclear radiation come to this?

Atomfritz said...

Good that more and more people begin to see the necessity that this legacy of spent fuel has to be dealt with adequately.

Dry-cask storage is far safer than pool storage.
It is expensive when seen with a financially short-term view.
In the long term it is far cheaper than a new catastrophe.

But, as it won't be Tepco who pays when a spent fuel pool catastrophe occurs, Tepco obviously has no incentive to do anything about that. It's exactly the same with the USA nuclear industry, who relies on wet "temporary" storage too.

Anonymous said...

Good to see Huffington Post catching up.

Will it continue? Probably not.

Anonymous said...

"with roughly 85 times more long-lived radioactivity than released at Chernobyl"

This comparison of unreleased Fukushima material with released Chernobyl material is meaningless. Chernobyl had probably more unreleased material in units 1 ~ 3.

Anonymous said...

Scare-mongering with faulty facts. Reactor 7?

Anonymous said...

Why didn't Huffington Post get Arnie Gundersen to do a blog?

Still, at least it's getting the message out there that this is ongoing.

Anonymous said...

@anon at 8:04PM, Why? Maybe because Gundersen would "mis-speak" even more. "Reactor 7" and Rokkasho located south of Fukushima are bad enough already.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

I wrote to Dr. Alvarez about those minor details. No response so far.

Anonymous said...

After being in one of the largest earthquakes in the world's recorded history, so far there is zero evidence of any significant damage to the spent fuel in the pools (confirmed by water analysis). I say this while pointing out that the spent fuel remains to be fully inspected - an important caveat. The most worrisome appears to be SFP3. The structural analysis did not show any significant damage to the spent fuel pool structures. I think that the issue with SFP4 is the close packing that was most likely not considered when doing the structural engineering design initially - not any significant earthquake damage. The close packing significantly increases the weight of the pool. I don't think that it does any good to indulge in this kind of scare mongering as there does not seem to be any alternative to deal with the problem other than what TEPCO is already doing (i.e. clearing debris and building the structures necessary to transfer the spent fuel to casks for removal from the damaged buildings).

The spent fuel stored in 5 & 6 is relatively safe as the buildings (a) are relatively undamaged, (b) have shown that they are able to withstand a huge earthquake and (c) are probably not overloaded like SFP4 might be. It would be irresponsible to take resources away from units 1 through 4 to remove fuel in 5 & 6, where there is no crisis.

Again, in summary there is no alleged structural damage to the spent fuel pools in units 1 through 4 according to TEPCO's seismic analysis as claimed herein. The risk of catastrophic failure is therefore low. There especially does not appear to be any structural damage to SFP4, except that it may be overloaded due to what was supposed to be temporary removal of the core to SFP4 while the shroud was being replaced. As for overheating, since a year has passed, the decay heat generated by the spent fuel has also declined significantly, so the risk has also dropped in the same measure. In short, there is great urgency especially to remove fuel from SFP4, but it needs to be done properly and that is going to take some time no matter what. As for spent fuel in other plants, especially the US, the sane thing to do is to finish and use Yucca Mountain, as any other alternative would take many many years if it too isn't ultimately blocked on political grounds.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to think these shrill calls for imminent SFP4 collapse have more to do with the NRC's reappointment of Svinicki.

Yosaku said...


Thanks for reaching out to Alvarez. If you could also ask him what post-secondary degree(s) he has, that would be reassuring. I've seen people allege elsewhere that he never finished college, let alone with a technical degree. I assume this to be incorrect, but haven't been able to find any evidence to debunk this. His bio over at IPS was not helpful in this regard, other than to evidence his political appointments.

Anonymous said...

Further to 10:44 PM

Assuming the rigidity degradation due to cracks in the remaining floors and walls from the explosion, the parameter study results showed that there was no significant difference with the evaluation of the Spent Fuel Pool with or without rigidity degradation. (page 5: similar statement regarding possible degradation due to fire follows this one with same conclusion) (See also List 2 on page 106)

The spent fuel pool have (sic) been evaluated as no damage since thickness of the wall and floor is 1400 to 1850 mm (4.6 to 6 feet), while that of the damaged exterior wall is 600 mm (~2 ft) at most, and the water level has been maintained as full after completion of circulating water cooling system. (page 9) (See also Table 2 on page 58.)

Comparing the SFP floor of Unit 4 to Unit 3 (List 2 vs Table 2):
Out-of-plane shear force: 0.70 (SFP4) to 0.48 (SFP3) for the base case.

These ratios are a "comparison of (the) ratio of the strain or the stress to (the) evaluation standard value." I suppose that 0.70 (compared to 1.00) wasn't judged to have enough of a margin of safety and so they decided to reinforce the bottom of SFP4. After reinforcement, the 0.70 was calculated to be reduced to 0.56 for the base case (page 112).

Based on this analysis, Dr. Alvarez's statement that "The pools could possibly topple or collapse from structural damage coupled with another powerful earthquake" seems unfounded. I have previously expressed a concern about cracking of SFP4 floor due to moment curve inversion caused by the new support that was built under SFP4, but "toppling" or "collapsing" seems very unlikely. A crack of the pool floor concrete may cause leakage, but only if the stainless steel liner also cracks. As I expressed before, hopefully TEPCO checked that there was enough compression steel to prevent the risk of cracking.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

@anon at 11:53PM, thank you for your analysis and the links. I wasn't aware of the detailed reports from TEPCO on the topic. I wish I had studied more science to understand the reports...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Alvarez seems to have studied music but didn't get the degree.

Anonymous said...

@arevamirpal::laprimavera, more GOTCHA journalism, hey? But you're selective about that aren't you.

Increasingly, you are showing yourself to be far less critical toward TEPCO press releases than you are toward critics of the nuclear industry.

Interesting that your editorial comments on the Robert Alvarez column focused exclusively on three nit-picking points of factual "clarification". As if on cue, several anon comments subsequently used that nit-picking info to mount an anti-Alvarez pile-on.

You've done this before Laprimavera, in other posts about other nuclear industry critics like Gundersen, and former senior Japanese officials Matsumura and Murata.

Time and again, your editorial setup deliberately emphasizes such trivial errors with the intent of entirely shifting focus away from the substantive content of high-profile reports like this latest one by Alvarez.

Nowadays, your writing puts a lot of emphasis on radiation findings. And your posts don't tend to emphasize much of anything about the thoroughly FUBAR condition of the reactors at Fukushima. In fact, your posts put the best possible face on the 'progress' TEPCO claims to be making at the site -- especially when it comes to the epically FUBAR state of the spent fuel pool of reactor #4.

One wonders whether a syntax analysis might show that you are actually authoring anon comments yourself, in order to express more extreme opinions than you are willing to sign your name to.

You started out great Laprimavera, but now it looks like you have a different agenda. It might soon be clear to everyone who is paying any attention at all.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

Look, if claiming there is Reactor 7 at Fukushima is so trivial to you, why do you even bother reading any news about Fukushima?

Anonymous said...

@anon at 11:36AM, just keep visiting a site like this, and you'll be cool:

Anonymous said...

That's right, to be perfectly clear: I don't give a FLYING FU@K about the non-existence of reactor #7. However, like Robert Alvarez, and other nuclear industry critics, I do deeply give a fu@k about reactors 1-4, the meltdowns, the #4 SFP, as well as:

..."the 1,882 spent fuel the elevated pools at reactors 5, 6, and 7 [sic] which did not experience meltdowns and explosions". (Bob Alvarez)

Notice the "[sic]" above? That's how easy it is to correct that earth-shattering error about "reactor 7". That's what you would have done if you weren't purposefully seeking to divert attention away from the substantive content of the other 1200 words in Bob Alvarez's essay. Yeah, you're on a roll, Laprimavera. Move over Woodward and Bernstein.

Anonymous said...

@arevamirpal::laprimavera, please show us the document you said you: "wrote to Dr. Alvarez about those minor details".

If you don't produce the document, we don't know whether you're bluffing. I'd like to be proven wrong on this.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

You want me to disclose my private email to him in a public place, even when he hasn't responded? Can you clarify what you mean by bluffing?

Anonymous said...

@arevamirpal::laprimavera, why can't you just cut and paste the text that you said you wrote to Alvarez about those "minor details" -- more to the point, those nit-picking details that comprised the entirety of your editorial comments on his article?

I imagine it wouldn't be much more "private" than what you've already written in your original blog post and your comments here on this thread, would it? Moreover, if you also post it here, it is more likely to come to the attention of Mr. Alvarez -- and that is what you want, isn't it? Btw, by "bluffing", I mean bull$hitting.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 2:42, take a hike.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

@anon 11:36:
Do you have a blog in which you are so much more specific, thorough, and critical in the "right" places? I would love to read it, especially if it is geared to someone like me who does not understand extremely technical details very easily and/or well.


Anonymous said...

@anon 1:03 PM,

I suppose it might be an honest error in relating reactor 7 (not even constructed yet) to the events of last year, and it might be hasty to discount someone's credibility based on that. However, when someone purports to know the potential threat of the "the 1,882 spent fuel assemblies" without apparently awareness of other basic facts such as how many reactors and fuel pools exists on the site, it should raise a flag.

The moral of the story is, don't start a numbers game when you yourself are unwilling to ensure your own precision and accuracy. Blustering about how Fukushima is so many dozens of times worse than Chernobyl without accurate or adequate facts to back up your arguement makes you look foolish.

Anonymous said...

I guess that what the author means by "reactor 7" is the common pool, because if you add it to the pools in each reactor building, you have a total of 7 pools in Fukushima Daiichi. But what is meaningless is that the author never attempts to count how many spent fuel pools and fuel assemblies there were in Chernobyl units 1~3.

"Spent fuel is currently stored at the site in an interim wet storage facility constructed in Soviet times (ISF‑1) and in pools in the units."

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